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A TREASURE CHEST: What Mothers Leave Behind

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.


My mother, perhaps like yours, gave the gift of nature. I remember her here.

The old chest of drawers proved to be a treasure chest. It was a small piece of furniture, perhaps an old washstand, with three drawers.

It sat in a storage unit for over a year, and when we bought a house with a garage, we moved it there, along with stacks of boxes filled with the remains of my mother’s life.

As everyone must do someday, my wife and I sorted out the heirlooms. But for the longest time I could not bear to disturb the chest, as if it slept.

This chest had held my mother’s art supplies. She made her living as a greeting card artist. She began working in Kansas City, at age 16, for Hallmark Cards and over the years became known as one of the best free-lance greeting card artists.

I grew up watching her work. I would stand next to her art table and watch her hand move the brush expertly across the paper and then move to the right, to the chest, where she would dip it into blotches of paint or stir the brush loudly in an old fruit jar of water.

The paints and an airbrush and her heavy tape dispenser and her scissors were kept there. From time to time, the tape or the scissors would disappear, and she would call out irritated to her two boys to bring them back. But she never banned us from her desk. The squares of blotter paper she cut out were just right for our drawings, and our drawings littered the floor below the table.

Over the years, she covered the chest with layers of spilled paint and ink and tattooed it with cigarette burns. She was always leaving her cigarettes burning.

One day, I decided that the time had come to go through the chest and refinish it and give it a new life. I sat on the garage floor and sorted through the treasures she had stashed there over the years. They were jumbled in time and space.

Among them …

A list of Ghostbuster action figures, written by my son Jason when he was in kindergarten.

A wallet-sized photograph of my father when he was in his 20s, very solemn and grown up.

An envelope postmarked September 1, 1931, 7 PM, on it a grocery list written by my grandmother preparing for my mother’s seventh birthday party: “Large dice for Pauline. Roller skates, $1.17 … 15 gifts, 5 cents ea., two cakes. .50.” Fifteen names were written on the envelope: Betty, Patsy, Bertha, Carl, Pet, Stanley…

A story recounting a family fish tale: “The gar the kid and the kid’s brother. A true story by Jason F. Louv. Once upon a time there was a kid his name was Rich and his brother and once they were floating in the water behind the bote and the parents in the bote caught a gar it struggled they were scared they throt it off the bote the end.”

A family genealogy, in my mother’s handwriting: “All were farmers except for one Herr, who was a lawyer. Only interesting fact was about Thomas Mifflin. He was a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary War . . . ” The Streeters, she wrote, came “across the U.S. to Nebraska in covered wagons.”

Bottles of ink, squeezed tubes of paint. An address book from the ’50s. A letter my mother, as a little girl, wrote on lined notebook paper in tortured, just-learned cursive:

“Dear Arthur. How are you? I am fine. I love you very much. Where were you Saturday and Sunday. I wanted to play with you. This is why I wanted to because I didn’t have anybody to play with. Alice was gone to the lake and Marjorie went to her Grandmother’s house to stay one month. And now I have no one to play with. Will you please tell me what grade you are in, Arthur. For the first time in school I am using ink…”

Blotter paper, tracing paper, nozzles to an airbrush.

Her husband’s—my father’s—death certificate.

A 1933 letter from my grandfather, who I never met because he died in his 60s when my mother was 9 years old. Born during the Civil War, he was a yard supervisor for Kansas City Southern railroad. The letter is to someone named Charlie: “Business is picking up a little and people are more hopeful—the railroads are doing some better especially in freight traffic—we’re all wondering what will result from Roosevelt’s proposed rail central plan . . .”

An old newspaper column of mine.

Stacks of roughs for my mother’s greeting cards. Correspondence from the greeting card publishers. Deadlines set. Deadlines met. Lists of cards to do: “Madonna child, Lambs, Angel, Christ, Angel Head & Wings, Blue Sky, Profile Child, Santa on skis…”

A hand-drawn card from Jason to her: “We were meaning to tell you . . . you’re a great grandma. Merry Christmas.”

I finished sorting the contents of the chest and packed them into cardboard boxes, then dragged the chest to the middle of the garage. A neighbor came by. “That’s very old,” he said, inspecting the tongue and groove joints. It had originally been in my grandmother’s house in Independence, Mo. I spent the next six hours bent over the chest, leaning into the grain.

Perhaps it was the noise from the electric sander, or the repetitive motion, or the concentration, but as I wore away the years, I heard my mother’s voice. We talked all afternoon.

“Richy, your drawing is wonderful.” A deep red stain was fading. “Have you seen my tape?” I heard her laughing. I heard her swear. “I don’t like antiques. I like contemporary.” She told me about my grandmother, and about my grandfather. About the woods. The green lifted. “See what your brother’s up to.” Cigarette burns vanished. “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” I heard a sound like the ringing of a bell. It was my mother’s brush in the old fruit jar.

Year after year, decade after decade, perhaps even a century, lifted from the wood.

The sawdust began to smell fresher, newer, expectant.

I stood back and looked at the chest. A few of my mother’s marks remained. I thought: Perhaps I have gone too far; I should have left more of her there.

I heard her say she was pleased.

The chest, now quiet, is in our family room.

It remains unfinished.

____________________


Richard Louv
 is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age,” “VITAMIN N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life,” and other books.

Painting by Pauline Louv, a rough for a greeting card.
Photo: Pauline Louv at her art table, next to the chest.

More writing and resources:
MOTHER’S DAY: Mom’s Gifts of Nature
When Mothers Get Moving, Children Are More Active, Too
In Defense of Boredom: It Can Lead to Imaginative Play, Creativity and the Great OutdoorsThe Lady Across the Lake: How nature stimulates creativity and community
The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature they Need

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Mahalo for sharing your Mom’s memories so vividly! Having kayaked the Kaw River upstream from Lake Quivera, your narrative triggered a shared sense of place in space before your 1968-70 Mount Oread Jayhawker Magazine Yearbook Staff adventures!

    Reply
  2. Nice reminiscence. The History of you and your understanding of where and who you came from. You have now your Legacy to leave to those you love. Fill this unfinished chest with your memories Richard. I’ve heard you speak on two occasions and I work at a Title I school whose students don’t know what a forest really is. I’m a nature girl and this breaks my heart!

    Reply
    • I get the same feeling when I look throught the pickle recipes fo my father. I felt the same andmy children were thinking whem I started talking in the language and dialect they never heard before. Only me and my mom were there. Weird but true, in a way a time travek adventure.Thanks to Richard Louv..and friends…I am happy to know, I am not the only one.

      Reply
  3. W Polsce mieliśmy Dzień Mamy 26 maja – wczoraj. Poczucie bycia częścią rodzinnej historii, częścią życia wspaniałych silnych i ciepłych kobiet jest wzruszające i dające siłę. Przeczytać czyjeś wspomnienia i wyzwolić swoje – to dobre i piękne chwile. Dziękuję za taka inspirację.

    Google Translation: “In Poland, we had Mother’s Day on May 26 – yesterday. The feeling of being part of family history, part of the life of wonderful strong and warm women is moving and giving strength. To read someone’s memories and free yours – these are good and beautiful moments. Thank you for such an inspiration.”

    Reply
  4. In so many levels I relate to you , Richard Louv. My absolute love of nature and my mission for years to motivate kids to become nature explorers as well as protectors of nature. I’ve written many songs and musicals ( with and for kids). Now we have a new book TAKE A CLOSER LOOK.. author : Barbara Saunders Sims ( national consultant for early childhood education and owner of children’s book store recognized by teachers as #7th. best children’s book store inUSA)and photographer: myself, Dianne Maynard Baker , ( nurse-BSN, composer, author, photographer) . In my presentations I talk about preventing nature-deficit disorder and yes, I have a new song “Take a Closer Look”. You, Richard Louv,are amazing and have reached so many especially now with new ‘Children and Nature Network… I’d love to talk to you and send you my books and materials I’ve created that I use in helping kids to connect to nature that helps meet goals in education and healthcare. I’ve worked on my projects using music and photography in schools and hospitals for over 40 yrs and want to share what I’ve accomplished . Many programs also involve kids researching history of their state, town and their families . This story above fits perfectly with my song Boxes of Memories when my parents were packing up boxes when they had to move in their later years.
    “Boxes of Memories” …
    Chorus: Boxes of memories..tied up with love
    Souvenirs of blessings sent from above
    Photographs, letters, old records we find
    That represent… a small percent … of the boxes in my mind.
    I’ve admired you , your books and “world ” work you’ve done for years, Richard Louv, and to get a chance to talk to you or at least communicate with you would cross off an item on my “bucket list”.
    Dianne Baker, 4385 Joanne Dr., Ann Arbor, Mi. 48103 734 665-8984

    Reply

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